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- The Republic by Plato
The Republic by Plato
A Philosophical Journey into a Just Society
Plato stands as a pivotal figure in Ancient Greek philosophy and Western thought. He founded the Academy, often regarded as the first university in the world, where he educated his most notable student, Aristotle. In 375 BCE, Plato published his renowned work, The Republic, where he explores the concept of a society governed by a philosopher-king.
Unlike other philosophers, Plato presents his ideas through written dialogues, a technique inspired by his teacher, Socrates. These dialogues, typically featuring Socrates as the main character, explore various themes like courage, love, virtue, and justice, the latter being the central topic of The Republic.
Raphael’s The School of Athens, 1509–1510, a fresco located in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City
The era of Plato’s life, the latter half of the 5th century BCE, was a time of both triumph and turmoil for Athens. It marked the peak of Athenian democracy and influence under Pericles, transforming Athens into a dominant force in the region. However, this period also saw a rapid decline due to the Peloponnesian War. Athens, led into conflict against a coalition spearheaded by its rival Sparta, faced defeat and the temporary collapse of its democracy. This political backdrop is crucial for understanding Plato’s work, especially his critique of democracy and Athenian society in The Republic.
In The Republic, Plato presents his vision of a “just state,” detailing its structure, governance, educational system, and societal norms. Karl Popper, a prominent 20th-century philosopher, criticized Plato’s ideal state as totalitarian, noting its limited freedom, lack of diversity, and strict social regimentation akin to Sparta.
Democracy’s lack of required qualifications for public office was a point of criticism for Plato, who believed it resulted in unskilled individuals making harmful decisions for society. In his ideal state, society is divided into three classes: the guardians, consisting of philosophers, who govern the city; the auxiliaries, who are soldiers defending the city; and the producers, including farmers and craftsmen, forming the lowest class.
This leads to Plato’s definition of justice as “to do one’s own business and not to be a busybody.” He suggests that justice involves fulfilling one’s appropriate role, a concept applicable to both the individual and the state. In a just state, every class and individual has specific duties and obligations to the community. When these are fulfilled, it results in a harmonious society. Accordingly, a person who performs their role well receives the deserved credit and remuneration, while failure incurs suitable punishment.
In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill... we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.
According to Plato, a robust education system is vital for a just society. In his ideal state, both guardians and auxiliaries undergo the same training, starting with music and literature and culminating in gymnastics. This education includes censorship of the arts, a measure Plato defends by arguing that art is a mere imitation of reality and thus twice removed from truth. He believes that art, instead of engaging reason and intellect, appeals to the lower aspects of human nature, such as emotions and desires. Plato warns that art can corrupt society by promoting immoral behavior. Therefore, only art that fostered virtues and the common good should be allowed.
Challenging traditional family structures, Plato advocates for communal parenting where no man knows his own children or favors any particular woman. Mothers are not allowed to recognize their own children but are instead assigned other children to nurse.
In this envisioned society, private property and money are almost nonexistent to avoid disputes over possessions and relationships. Plato’s overarching aim is to create a community where everyone views each other as family members, minimizing conflict and fostering uniformity in desires and goals. This extends to a collective demeanor of harmony, temperance, and kindness towards fellow citizens, contrasted with toughness towards outsiders, ensuring a united stance on all matters.
Life in Plato’s ideal state bears similarities to living under a totalitarian regime. The laws Plato proposes are restrictive, limiting people to a single occupation best suited to their nature. There is no separation between public and private life. Neither wealth nor poverty is allowed, as Plato views both as pathways to vice.
The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.
In The Republic, Plato introduces the allegory of the cave, a powerful illustration to explain his theory of knowledge. He suggests that true knowledge emerges through questioning and critical reflection. The allegory depicts people who initially see only shadows in a cave; upon escaping and seeing the world as it truly is, they gain enlightenment. These enlightened individuals resemble philosopher-kings, capable of ruling the state with wisdom and insight.
Scholars debate Plato’s intentions behind his portrayal of an ideal society in The Republic. Some argue that Plato’s vision was not meant to be realized but rather served as a philosophical critique of political utopianism. On the contrary, most commentators view The Republic as Plato’s serious prescription for an ideal society, though opinions vary on its totalitarian implications.
Additionally, some scholars discern early feminist ideas in Plato’s advocacy for women as political leaders. However, this progressive view is contrasted with criticisms labeling the text as a precursor to state-sponsored eugenics, due to its advocacy of controlled breeding among the guardian class. This duality in Plato’s work, blending progressive ideas with controversial propositions, continues to stir a spectrum of responses, from admiration to critique.
Words of wisdom
“Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” –Mary Oliver
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” —Plato
“I always prefer to believe the best of everybody; it saves so much trouble.” —Rudyard Kipling
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” —Richard Feynman
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